History Timeline 1840s

Above Photo: Bezaleel W. Armstrong, circa 1846. 2nd Lt., 1st and 2nd Dragoons. Served in the Mexican War at Vera Cruz and Mexico City. Right: Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail in Wyoming. Photo from Hayden Survey, William H. Jackson, 1870. Courtesy National Archives.

Oregon Trail

U.S. Timeline - The 1840s

The Mexican War

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  • Timeline

  • 1840 - Detail

    January 13, 1840 - Off the coast of Long Island, New York, 139 people lose their lives when the steamship Lexington burns and sinks four miles off the coast.

    Steamship Lexington

    When we think of the tragic sinking of passenger or commercial ships in the United States, we often, naturally, pull our attention toward the Titanic or the Lusitania, which occurred later in our history and the second, part of the cause of U.S. involvement in World War I, but unfortunately these mishaps occurred at a significant pace, even more so in the earlier day of shipping. And one that may have slipped the minds of many is the loss of lives that occurred when the Lexington sunk off the coast of Long Island.

    The paddlewheel steamship Lexington was built by railroad and shipping magnet Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in history. It was to be one of the most luxurious ships in the world, constructed in 1834 at the Bishop and Simonson Shipyards, designed by Vanderbilt himself, with an engine built specifically for the project at the West Point Foundary. The engine was a marvel for its time; using a walk beam mechanism that allowed for its excellent efficiency. The ship itself was two hundred and seven feet long, weighing four hundred and eighty eight long tons. It was ornate. It was elegant. It had a lounge and dining saloon.

    The maiden voyage of the Lexington was in 1835, a day boat between New York City and Providence, Rhode Island. Its voyages were travels up and down the northeast coast of the United States. Its main route transitioned in 1837 to Stonington, Connecticut, which was the railroad terminus from Boston. It was the fastest boat from New York to Boston at that time.

    Vanderbilt sold the ship in 1838 to the New Jersey Steamship Navigation and Transportation Company.

    The Fateful Journey

    The steamship had been in service from 1835 to 1840 without incident. But on January 13, 1840, at 3:00 p.m., it left the pier at Manhattan's East River for an overnight journey to Stonington, manned by its second, veteran Captain George Childs, who had replaced Jacob Vanderbilt, brother to Cornelius, due to illness. There were one hundred and forty three passengers and crew aboard. Almost all of the passengers had paid the extra fifty cents cost to be inside the cabins as the weather was very cold and the seas high.

    Four miles off Eaton's Neck on Long Island's North Shore, the ship's first mate noticed fire on the wood around the ship's smokestack around 7:30 p.m. The crew attempted to extinguish the flames with buckets and a small hand-pumped fire engine, but it was futile. The three lifeboats were launched, but the first hit the churning paddlewheel and sunk, killing all aboard, including the captain who had fallen in. The crew had not been able to reach the boiler to shut it off. The second and third lifeboats had their ropes cut incorrectly and they hit the sea stem first. They sunk immediately.

    Pilot Stephen Manchester steered the Lexington toward shore, attempting to beach it, but the fire ropes to the rudder burned through, and it halted, then drifted two miles from shore. Those still on ship threw luggage overboard and attempted to use them as rafts. Only twenty could find life preservers. The main deck collapsed at 8:00 p.m. Those who could not climb atop the makeshift rafts died of hypothermia; only four people would survive.

    Ships came to rescue them; Chester Hilliard was the only passenger to survive, afloat aboard a bale of cotton when the sloop Merchant arrived. Of the crew, Stephen Manchester, the ship's pilot, and Charles Smith, a fireman, were rescued by the Merchant the next day. David Crowley, the second mate, rode a bale of cotton for forty-three hours, ending up ashore fifty miles east. He walked one mile to a local home and recovered.

    Over the years, the ship had been attempted to be raised, in order to recover silver and paper money purported aboard. One attempt did recover some silver, but till today, the Lexington sits at the bottom of the sea, in three sections, one hundred and forty feet deep.

    New York Sun, 1/16/1840, primary portion of article.

    The Lexington

    Left New York for Stonington, at 3 o'clock on Monday afternoon, Jan. 13, 1840. Almost half past 7 o'clock, when off Eaton's Neck, L.I., the wood-work, casings, &c., about the flues, were disovered to be on fire. An alarm was immediately given, and all efforts to subdue the flame proving unabailing, the pilot headed the boat directly for Long Island shore. When she had got within about two miles of the shore her engine suddenly stopped. In the mean time the life-boat and small boats had been got out, but the former was broken to pieces by being struck by one of the wheels, and the latter were swamped by mismanagement in lowering them into the water crowded with passengers. No relief was therefore obtained from either of the boats. All hopes of escape to those on board, except by clinging to such articles of freight as would sustain them, were now cut off. The freight of the Lexington consisted pricipally of cotton, on which some of the passengers tried to save themselves, but none succeeded except Capt. Hilliard, Mr. Manchester, the pilot, Charles Smith, one of the firemen, and a passenger who had been picked up and taken to River Head, and who was so far gone as to be unable to disclose his name.

    It was believed, however, that he would survive. Capt. H. continued upon his bale of cotton until 11 o'clock A.M. Tuesday, when he was taken off by a sloop which went out from Southport, having thus exposed about 15 hours. The same sloop rescued the other two, who were clinging to a fragment of the boat. The bodies of two others, one a colored woman, were likewise taken from a part of the wreck, on which they had perished with cold. The steamer Statesmen on Thursday also picked up one body and thirteen trunks. The bodies of Hempstead, chief engineer, and Sands, the head waiter, have also been recovered.

    The number of passengers on board is not known with any degree of certainty. It is most probable, however, they numbered about EIGHTY - of whom but two were rescued alive. The boat's company numbered THIRTY, of whom also but two were saved.

    We regret to have to add, that among the passengers were the wife and two interesting children of Russell Jarvis, Esq., formerly of Boston, more laterly editor of the Philadelphia World, and at present editor of the Evening Tatler in this city. Capt. Hilliard, whose attention had been attracted to this interesting and unfortunate family at the table, saw Mrs. Jarvis floating with one of her own children in her arms, on a bale of cotton. The other child had leaped overboard, as had also a great many other passengers, some twenty of whom had life preservers on. When observed by Capt. H., Mrs. Jarvis was fanticly calling upon the persons in the water to preserve her child and bring it to her on the bale. Mother, children, passengers and all, however, sunk to a common grave.

    The steamboat Statesman on Friday repaired to the scene of the disaster, bringing five bodies, one of which was that of Mr. Stephen Waterbury, of this city, and another that of Mr. Pailo Upson, of South Egremont, Massachusetts, two others those of Benjamin Leddeu and Silas Thorburn, hands on board the steamer, and the fifth that of a boy 4 or 5 years of age ...

    Photo above: Lithograph of the sinking of the Steamship Lexington in 1840, 1840, W.K. Hewitt, Courier and Ives. This lithograph was the first successful image by the company and launched the rest of their career. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Montage of (left) Cornelius Vanderbilt, circa 1844/1860, Mathew Brady's Studio, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke; (right) Bottom exterior photo of the West Point Foundary, 1897, from book by John A. Hill, Angus Sinclair. Both courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Source: Wikipedia Commons; Southhamptonhistory.org; alamy.com; The Sun Newspaper, 1/16/1840.

    Cornelius Vanderbilt and West Point Foundary

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